Some Convenient Truths

Runaway global warming looks all but unstoppable. Maybe that’s because we haven’t really tried to stop it
By Gregg Easterbrook

If there is now a scientific consensus that global warming must be taken seriously, there is also a related political consensus: that the issue is Gloom City. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore warns of sea levels rising to engulf New York and San Francisco and implies that only wrenching lifestyle sacrifice can save us. The opposing view is just as glum. Even mild restrictions on greenhouse gases could ―cripple our economy,‖ Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri said in 2003. Other conservatives suggest that greenhouse-gas rules for Americans would be pointless anyway, owing to increased fossil-fuel use in China and India. When commentators hash this issue out, it’s often a contest to see which side can sound more pessimistic. Here’s a different way of thinking about the greenhouse effect: that action to prevent runaway global warming may prove cheap, practical, effective, and totally consistent with economic growth. Which makes a body wonder: Why is such environmental optimism absent from American political debate? Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem—and all previous air-pollution problems have been reduced faster and more cheaply than predicted, without economic harm. Some of these problems once seemed scary and intractable, just as greenhouse gases seem today. About forty years ago urban smog was increasing so fast that President Lyndon Johnson warned, ―Either we stop poisoning our air or we become a nation [in] gas masks groping our way through dying cities.‖ During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, threatened to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. As recently as George H. W. Bush’s administration, acid rain was said to threaten a ―new silent spring‖ of dead Appalachian forests. But in each case, strong regulations were enacted, and what happened? Since 1970, smogforming air pollution has declined by a third to a half. Emissions of CFCs have been nearly eliminated, and studies suggest that ozone-layer replenishment is beginning. Acid rain, meanwhile, has declined by a third since 1990, while Appalachian forest health has improved sharply. Most progress against air pollution has been cheaper than expected. Smog controls on automobiles, for example, were predicted to cost thousands of dollars for each vehicle. Today’s new cars emit less than 2 percent as much smog-forming pollution as the cars of 1970, and the cars are still as affordable today as they were then. Acid-rain control has cost about 10 percent of what was predicted in 1990, when Congress enacted new rules. At that time, opponents said the regulations would cause a ―clean-air recession‖; instead, the economy boomed. Greenhouse gases, being global, are the biggest air-pollution problem ever faced. And because widespread fossil-fuel use is inevitable for some time to come, the best-case scenario for the next

few decades may be a slowing of the rate of greenhouse-gas buildup, to prevent runaway climate change. Still, the basic pattern observed in all other forms of air-pollution control—rapid progress at low cost—should repeat for greenhouse-gas controls. Yet a paralyzing negativism dominates global-warming politics. Environmentalists depict climate change as nearly unstoppable; skeptics speak of the problem as either imaginary (the ―greatest hoax ever perpetrated,‖ in the words of Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate’s environment committee) or ruinously expensive to address. Even conscientious politicians may struggle for views that aren’t dismal. Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic political consultant, says, ―When political candidates talk about new energy sources, they use a positive, can-do vocabulary. Voters have personal experience with energy use, so they can relate to discussion of solutions. If you say a car can use a new kind of fuel, this makes intuitive sense to people. But global warming is of such scale and magnitude, people don’t have any commonsense way to grasp what the solutions would be. So political candidates tend to talk about the greenhouse effect in a depressing way.‖ One reason the global-warming problem seems so daunting is that the success of previous antipollution efforts remains something of a secret. Polls show that Americans think the air is getting dirtier, not cleaner, perhaps because media coverage of the environment rarely if ever mentions improvements. For instance, did you know that smog and acid rain have continued to diminish throughout George W. Bush’s presidency? One might expect Democrats to trumpet the decline of air pollution, which stands as one of government’s leading postwar achievements. But just as Republicans have found they can bash Democrats by falsely accusing them of being soft on defense, Democrats have found they can bash Republicans by falsely accusing them of destroying the environment. If that’s your argument, you might skip over the evidence that many environmental trends are positive. One might also expect Republicans to trumpet the reduction of air pollution, since it signifies responsible behavior by industry. But to acknowledge that air pollution has declined would require Republicans to say the words, ―The regulations worked.‖ Does it matter that so many in politics seem so pessimistic about the prospect of addressing global warming? Absolutely. Making the problem appear unsolvable encourages a sort of listless fatalism, blunting the drive to take first steps toward a solution. Historically, first steps against air pollution have often led to pleasant surprises. When Congress, in 1970, mandated major reductions in smog caused by automobiles, even many supporters of the rule feared it would be hugely expensive. But the catalytic converter was not practical then; soon it was perfected, and suddenly, major reductions in smog became affordable. Even a small step by the United States against greenhouse gases could lead to a similar breakthrough. And to those who worry that any greenhouse-gas reductions in the United States will be swamped by new emissions from China and India, here’s a final reason to be optimistic: technology can move across borders with considerable speed. Today it’s not clear that American inventors or entrepreneurs can make money by reducing greenhouse gases, so relatively few are trying. But suppose the United States regulated greenhouse gases, using its own domestic

program, not the cumbersome Kyoto Protocol; then America’s formidable entrepreneurial and engineering communities would fully engage the problem. Innovations pioneered here could spread throughout the world, and suddenly rapid global warming would not seem inevitable. The two big technical advances against smog—the catalytic converter and the chemical engineering that removes pollutants from gasoline at the refinery stage—were invented in the United States. The big economic advance against acid rain—a credit-trading system that gives power-plant managers a profit incentive to reduce pollution—was pioneered here as well. These advances are now spreading globally. Smog and acid rain are still increasing in some parts of the world, but the trend lines suggest that both will decline fairly soon, even in developing nations. For instance, two decades ago urban smog was rising at a dangerous rate in Mexico; today it is diminishing there, though the country’s population continues to grow. A short time ago declining smog and acid rain in developing nations seemed an impossibility; today declining greenhouse gases seem an impossibility. The history of air-pollution control says otherwise. Americans love challenges, and preventing artificial climate change is just the sort of technological and economic challenge at which this nation excels. It only remains for the right politician to recast the challenge in practical, optimistic tones. Gore seldom has, and Bush seems to have no interest in trying. But cheap and fast improvement is not a pipe dream; it is the pattern of previous efforts against air pollution. The only reason runaway global warming seems unstoppable is that we have not yet tried to stop it.

Quitting Smoking
A couple of years ago I quit smoking, and to help myself along, I read a book called Alan Carr’s Easy Way To Quit Smoking. Now, Carr’s basic premise is twofold: First: you have to accept that smoking is not a habit, it is a drug addiction; and Second: the only way to quit smoking is to never have a cigarette again. He goes on to explain that every smoker has brainwashed themselves into believing that smoking helps them in some way – calms them down, allows them to focus, makes an event feel more celebratory – when the truth is, all smoking a cigarette does is temporarily satisfy the craving for a cigarette, while reintroducing into your body the very substance you will once again crave. What the smoker needs to do to quit, is undo the brainwashing that cigarettes help them in any way, then suffer several weeks of physical withdrawal – a feeling he likens to a physical longing, but not unbearable – and then never have another cigarette again. Oh, and a positive frame of mind is essential. When you experience a craving, you’re to take this as a sign your body is transforming into the body of a non-smoker, and you should cheer, ―Yippee! I’m free!‖ Well, I followed his advice, and it worked. The other day, I was sitting alone in a Mexican restaurant and wondering whether it is possible to quit people, and good old Alan Carr came to mind. It’s maybe because I recently ended a relationship, and also have not been spending much time in my city, and my body has been experiencing very similar sensations as it did when I gave up cigarettes two years ago; it’s a physical ache that comes and goes, that’s almost painful, a sort of gaping emptiness, a void that needs to be filled. It often seems like the only way to cure myself of this craving is to give in – to return to him, to sleep with someone new… Not until you tear yourself from everyone you love does it appear that you are actually physically addicted to people. The longing for a person is almost identical to the longing for a smoke. It’s weird. Anyway, I am not a stoic. My response to withdrawal – which has been to flee into semisoothing rebound relationships – has prevented me from being able to stand before you today and declare with confidence that it is possible to renounce people, to bear the weeks of physical withdrawl symptoms, and thereafter attain the qualities that Alan Carr claims the non-smoker is in possession of: ―health, energy, wealth, peace of mind, confidence, courage, self-respect, happiness and freedom.‖ But though it wasn’t recent, I have spent time alone in the past, and in my memories of these times – the happiest times of my life – I really did seem possessed of substantially more courage, confidence, self-respect, freedom, energy, and peace of mind, than those times when I’ve surrounded myself with people. And if that’s the truth, and my memory’s not lying – why go out?

Phoning It In
By Stanley Bing December 9, 2002 Maybe it's the time of year. Or maybe it's the time of man, I don't know. But there's something going around, and it's worth evaluating. I first noticed it in myself, since I'm around myself more than I'm with other people, which may be part of the problem. A certain...inability to take things seriously. Not that I'm taking them lightly. I'm just not taking them. I called my friend Tom. "I think I'm phoning it in," I told him. It's an expression. He'd heard it before. "Yeah!" he said, brightening the way you do when you hear that somebody else has something that afflicts you. "Are you having trouble focusing on things?" "I don't know," I said, "but I appear to be having trouble focusing on things." "Why do you think that is?" said Tom, but I had lost interest already since we weren't talking exclusively about me, although we were, sort of. Later that day I called Mark out on the coast. Mark is a killer. I mean, he doesn't actually kill people, but he would if he could. It's one of the corporation's most valuable assets. "What do you want to do about the Ehrlanger situation?" I didn't care about the Ehrlanger situation, but it was an issue on his watch, and I thought he might want to talk about it. "I don't give a fig about the Ehrlanger situation," he said, although that was not the actual term that he utilized. "You don't?" I said. "Well, if you don't, I don't, that's for sure." Then we talked about the stock price for a while, which is code for a whole bunch of stuff that has to do with freedom and release from servitude. Then we hung up. I asked what? So what if this week it seemed that a bunch of guys were phoning it in from Planet Mambo? What's the big deal? I sat there for a while and thought about Sandy Weill and Jack Grubman, suspected of manipulating the rating of AT&T, the first because he wanted to rule Citigroup alone and the second because he wanted to get his tot into some snotty nursery school. How much of what we do is like that? Stuff that looks like business but is really just a bunch of guys scratching an itch? Once you start to think that way, it's hard not to phone in the activities that feel inauthentic. And when you begin gauging the authenticity of the work you do, it's a short step to picking up that psychic receiver and phoning in the whole deal.

I put on my jacket and went outside for a walk. You know what I saw everywhere? Thousands of people quite literally phoning it in, walking down the street yakking into their little handheld receivers, nowhere near a place where people do any actual business. The whole society, phoning it in from digital space. Who exactly, I inquired of myself, was not phoning it in? Anybody? I went back to my office and thought about that for a while, and as I was thinking, about six people came into my office with a bunch of stuff. I couldn't really tell you what it was, but it was very important and had to be adjudicated immediately. And all six had something in common. Can you guess what it was? Then Landry called for maybe the fourth time that day. Landry is a good operator. She gives a big fig about everything, even stuff that isn't worth a fig. She gave me this long and involved story about a huge slight that was inflicted on her operation by some other entity someplace, and I was looking out the window and thinking, whoa, look at that BMW Z8. "You know what, Landry?" I said at last, because I couldn't think what else to say. "Why don't you just handle it the way you want to? Your instincts are good. Go with 'em." "Yeah?" said Landry. "Thanks! I will!" And she went away feeling good about herself, so I managed the situation all right, except that was by accident, because I was really just, you know, phoning it in. So then I sat there thinking, what is it with Landry and the six other warriors who breached my ruminations and made me deal with stuff? Are they smarter? No. Faster? Maybe, but that's not it. How come they're the only ones who are not phoning it in? Then it came to me. Let's put it this way. Jack Grubman remembers where he was when J.F.K. was shot. So do Tom and Mark and I. These other guys rushing in with problems that need solving don't. Because they're too young. And we're not. We're young enough to smell the open road. But we're too old to care about stuff that doesn't seem worth caring about. At least not this week.

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